Offseason Headscratcher: Who Will Emerge At Fullback/ F-Back?

Since 2007, when Garrett took over the offense, despite all the yards, touchdowns and accolades they have garnered, the Cowboys have had a consistent weak spot on their offense: a tight end/ fullback type who can fulfill the diverse functions that Daryl Johnston used to do so splendidly for the Ernie Zampese-designed offenses on which Jason Garret cut his teeth. Johnston lined up in the backfield, in the slot, or at tight end, allowing Zampese to run multiple formations with the same personnel.

Johnston was a classic "West Coast" fullback, an effective blocker who was also a weapon in the passing game. In 1993, for example, he played almost every down, helping lead Emmitt Smith to a rushing title and catching 50 (!) passes at a nice 7.4 yards a clip. He and tight end Jay Novacek used to run underneath combo routes that were unstoppable because defenses were so concerned with the home run threat posed by Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper.

In the years since he ascended to the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator position, Jason Garrett has had the deep threats (Terrell Owens, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant) and the tight end (Jason Witten) to rival and, in some instances, to outshine, the 90s passing game's skill players. But he hasn’t had the do-everything fullback; instead, he's had to get by with guys who have a significant hole in their game.

Who are these stopgaps? Find out after the jump...

Consider the likes of Lousaka Polite, Oliver Hoyte, and Deon Anderson, all of whom were battering rams at the point of attack but liabilities in the passing game; on the other hand, hybrid "F-back" types—think Anthony Fasano, Tony Curtis, and Chris Gronkowski—who catch well but weren’t particularly adept at clearing linebackers out of the hole. Every couple of years, Dallas has cycled through a couple of these players, mining for F-Back gold, without hitting paydirt.

For a moment early last season, that seemed to have ended. The most successful of 2009’s draft choices, to my mind, was sixth-rounder John Phillips, who was initially an afterthought (Dallas already had Witten and had just drafted Bennett the previous year), a guy who seemed destined to hang around the bottom of the roster. But he really came on at the end of ’09, even catching a touchdown pass in the Cowboys playoff win over the Eagles. At the beginning of 2010, he looked to continue his development; in training camp, he was markedly improved and I thought he was the best player on the field during the Hall of Fame game, before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Before going down against the Bengals, Phillips was the most successful "F-Back" Garrett’s offense has had. Not only was he as good, if not better than Deon Anderson blocking at the point of attack, he promised to be as competent a receiver as Anthony Fasano (hey, at least Phillips caught his playoff touchdown throw). And he helped diversify the offense: when Phillips was in the game, the defense didn’t know where he would line up (tight end, fullback, motion from one to the other) or what he might do (block, pass block, go out in a pattern) once the ball was snapped.

In April, it the Cowboys may have picked up another late round guy, who looks like he might be able to give Phillips a run for his money. Enter Shaun Chapas, a physical lead blocker who explodes into linebackers with a strong punch and is tenacious once locked on. Although he didn't play a prominent role in the passing game at the collegiate level, Chapas has demonstrated some upside as a receiver. According to scouts, Chapas has good hands, flashes the ability to snatch the ball out of the air, adjusts to poorly thrown balls, turns upfield fluidly and gains good yardage after contact.

All of this info presents some interesting questions to mull over as we wait for the lockout saga to breathe its last:

At the TE/ FB hybrid, Dallas looks to have three candidates: two good possibilities and a stopgap holdover. All three, however, bring a bag full of questions to the table. Obviously, Phillips is the leading candidate as long as he’s healthy—but how recovered is he from his knee injury? With the lockout doing away with all the various OTAs and minicamps, can Chapas learn enough to be more than a special teams demon (he excelled at "teams" at Georgia)? With Phillips—a guy who has established that he can play—and a fresh draft pick—Chapas—on the depth chart, does Gronkowski have any chance to make the team?

On top of that, we must consider how often Garrett will call for multiple TE formations in 2011. The past couple of seasons, he has relied on two-and three-tight end sets with increasing frequency, largely because of the decreasing proficiency of the Cowboys running game. These "heavy" sets help them both to get more blockers on the field and to establish the threat of a run where none existed, haloing the play-action passing game. I think Garrett would prefer not to have to rely on smoke and mirrors to run the ball next season.

Given the deep and talented receiving corps we imagine the Cowboys could field next season, how much sense do these multiple-TE formations make? Every time there’s a Chapas or Gronkowski on the field, that means the likes of Roy Williams or Dez Bryant are sitting on the bench. I certainly expect to see heavy sets as part of the Cowboys arsenal next season but—unless Dallas’ offensive line woes continue--would be surprised to see them as often.

Lastly: what will Martellus Bennett’s role be? Given the fact that he’s a terrific blocker but an uncertain route runner and receiver, Bennett has become somewhat of a glorified offensive tackle (despite the fact that he caught a career-high 33 balls in 2010). If Phillips continues to improve, ‘Tellus will be the most one-dimensional skill position player they have. It might get to the point where he’ll be this offense’s version of Deon Anderson: when he’s in the game, the opposing defense knows he’s no threat to catch a pass. That knowledge makes Dallas easier to defend.

Lots to consider here. If I were one of the Garrett boys (John Garrett coaches tight ends), I’d be thrilled by the possibilities, but anxious about how little time I have to sort out all these permutations. I guess that’s why they get the big money.
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